Creating Effective Ads: Super Bowl 2015

Another Super Bowl has come and gone followed by yet another week of chatter across the internet debating the best and worst commercials. It’s a little strange to me that this is the one event every year where people not only tolerate the commercials but some dare I say, celebrate them? What is typically an annoyance, (interrupting our favorite shows or sporting events), all of a sudden becomes a spectacle in and of itself. We’re all aware of the unfathomable amounts of money that get poured into these Super Bowl ads– the media buy alone this year was $4 million for a 30 second spot. And that’s before a single penny is spent on the production of the commercial itself.

Being in the ad world, we treated this year’s Super Bowl as a lesson in what makes an effective advertisement. There are many different approaches. Some are wild successes and some fall flat. Some are even ridiculed, which is a company’s absolute worst nightmare. I’ve been scouring and comparing the reviews to my own opinions, and below I’m going to dissect a few that have been declared success or failures.

AD 1: Snickers: The Brady Bunch

This ad was one of the first I saw that made me think, “Oh wow. They nailed it.” The very first shot of this ad pulls you in. Sometimes that’s all you really need. Even if you don’t instantly recognize the Brady Bunch house, (I didn’t… I’m way young!), starting with something very unconventional holds your interest. In a world where we’re constantly seeing beautiful HD footage, the flat and dated look of this spot really makes you wonder, “Hmm, where is this going?” This is one of the tenants of a solid advertisement. You have to peak people’s interest immediately. Grab their attention right from the beginning and don’t let go.

Once we move inside the house, you know exactly what the point of the spot is: nostalgia and humor. It’s a similar feeling to watching old home movies. Your brain gets a little jolt of happiness because you think about the past and how much you enjoyed watching the show. Then, once the nostalgia kicks in, they go for the knock out with the appearance of Danny Trejo – a well-known gritty action movie star in the modern film world. This stark contrast is almost guaranteed to incite laughter, and it was even more effective because of how well the production team recreated the vintage scene. Just when you think the ad is done, they hit you with one more punchline with the introduction of Steve Buscemi. It was totally unexpected, and his girly flailing was just… awesome.

This ad hits on three main points that make it successful: nostalgia, humor, and celebrity. By combining The Brady Bunch with two popular modern actors in an absurd situation, Snickers created an ad that is both effective and memorable. They’ve really struck gold with their, “You get a little (blank) when you’re hungry,” campaign. It’s a funny concept that they can milk for a long time until they run out of hilarious situations to put actors in… which shouldn’t be for a while. Well done, Snickers!

AD 2:  Nissan: With Dad

This Nissan ad was another production that decided to go the nostalgia route, albeit a much different, and in my opinion, less effective way. They took a concept that had been done in advertising many times before: tugging on the heart strings of parents.

The spot gets emotional right away, opening with a birth scene. A great song plays underneath talking about a baby being born today (Harry Chapin’s Cat’s In The Cradle). We then cut right away to a shot of a Nissan on a race track and go into the driver’s seat where we see our father figure. This establishes our story right away within the first 5 seconds of the commercial. We then cut to the inevitable adorable newborn baby shot. Cue the, “Awwww.”

From there we see the growing up montage. All the adorable emotional shots that parents can relate to are there: the mom stressed out carrying a bunch of stuff and her baby, sleeping in bed with the baby, first steps, etc. These are all inter spliced with clips of the dad’s racing career. There’s one scene where the mom is watching her husband’s race on television and he gets in an accident. He emerges from the wreck and raises his fists over his head. The slightly older baby – now a toddler – raises his fists the same way. It’s all quite heartwarming. Lots of warm fuzzies. This is undoubtedly the climax of the spot. In the final 45 seconds we see shots that show us that the son really admires his dad. He continues to grow and as a teenager we see him watching his dad on television. The son has a smile on his face that reads, “One day I’ll be like him.” The lyrics match the visuals perfectly.

The conclusion is where the entire spot falls flat. The son is leaving school with a group of his friends and he sees his dad sitting in his Nissan Maxima out front waiting for him. The son gets in the front seat, they both hug, the car drives off and the Nissan logo fades up. Any kind of emotional connection the viewer has built at this point, is completely lost. Our story arc peaked at the accident and from there it shot down rapidly and never picked back up. In the end I’m left with a plethora of beautiful cinematography but no concluding emotion. I’m not sure what the message Nissan is trying to convey is. Dads like Nissans? People grow up in Nissans? Nissans are for dudes?

It seems to me like this an example of having too many cooks. This is a 90 second spot, meaning it cost $12 million…$12 MILLION, just to put it on television. God knows how many more millions were spent on the production end. With that much money on the line, there are a lot of people who are going to want to say that they made the decision that led to its success. When you have too many people trying to do this, the result is often an ad that looks pretty, is well made, but doesn’t have any lasting impact. It doesn’t have a soul. It’s simply relying on a familiar formula of the nostalgia that parents have for raising kids and nothing more. Swing and a miss, Nissan.

AD 3: Budweiser: Brewed The Hard Way

This ad is causing quite a bit of controversy. I’ll explain why in a bit, but first I just have to say that this ad was executed superbly. It took simple marketing techniques and just nailed every single one of them, creating a spot that was well produced, memorable, and shot specific ways of thinking right into peoples’ consciousness.

The intent was to attack the craft beer industry. It did this by using the most effective strategy I know, creating an “us vs. them” mentality. Through a series of sentences that appeared on screen as modern, artistic animated text, Budweiser quickly established two opposing groups: those that drink Budweiser and those that drink craft beer. When the spot talks about Budweiser, behind the text are fun images that you’re used to seeing in American advertising: attractive, young people having a good time. When the craft beer is mentioned we see stereotypical looking hipster characters smelling their beer and fussing over the different kinds with their other hipster friends. They use phrases like, “It’s brewed for drinking.” Underneath this we see the typical bar scene that every “cool guy” hangs out at. The next sentence is, “Not for dissecting.” Under this we again see the group engaging in thoughtful discourse about about their brews. The idea that they are trying to instill is, “If you drink craft beer, you’re a sissy. If you drink Budweiser, you’re the man everyone wants you to be.” It’s also worth mentioning that the only time a woman is seen in this ad, she is bringing beer to the “dudes.”

This ad upset a fair amount of people online. It’s pretty sexist (for obvious reasons) and hypocritical since Anheuser-Busch is on a campaign of purchasing craft breweries while at the same time spending money to tell people not to drink them. I’m not sure what the motivation behind that is, but one thing is for certain, if I was less aware of the techniques being used here (and I was dumber), I would certainly start to think that my masculinity would be challenged if I drank craft beers. I can picture a lot of men who were perhaps on the fringe of trying craft beer – after seeing this they likely headed back in the other direction for fear of not being accepted by their Budweiser-drinking buddies.

This type of strategy is at the root of a lot of marketing campaigns. Remember, “I’m a Mac. I’m A PC?”  At it’s core this is the easiest way to get a message into the minds of viewers. Establish two clearly different sides and broadcast media telling them why one side is bad. I suppose I can accept this in advertising but it’s really scary when this starts to wade its way into things like our political system. But that’s a conversation for another time…and another blog.

As these spots demonstrate, there are many different way to create an effective (or ineffective) ad. Ultimately, it’s about grabbing the viewers attention right away with something they can relate to or something interesting, and then hammering home your message in a clear and effective way. Of course, this is much easier said than done and it’s really exciting to strive to accomplish these same things in our work at Anchor Line.

I’ll leave you with my personal favorite type of commercial: just plain weird. Thanks for this one, Squarespace!